Tag: spending clause

Education Silver Lining in ObamaCare Decision?

After having my brain twisted into a pretzel reading yesterday’s ObamaCare decision, I was as disturbed as anyone. I mean, I had spent most of my life thinking I knew the difference between a “penalty” and a “tax,” and it turns out I was just fooling myself. Not to get too existentialist about this, but it has really made me question whether anything I think is real truly is.

Anyway, I eventually discovered what might be a small silver lining in the ruling, at least for education: the Medicaid section might have begun to place some, very nebulous, boundary on the ability of the federal government to bribe states into adopting federal rules. That has been the primary mode by which Washington has taken over elementary and secondary education—think No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind waivers—and this ruling says there is a constitutional limit to what the federal government can do to coerce state action though spending.

Essentially, whether or not Spending Clause coercion is unconstitutional depends on whether it constitutes “undue influence” on states. For Chief Justice Roberts, that line was crossed when the Feds changed the rules for Medicaid and threatened states with the loss of all their funding if they didn’t follow the new strictures.

Obviously this doesn’t give us anything approaching a bright line on the limits to Spending Clause use. Such a limit surely can be found—no spending is allowed not connected to one of the specific, enumerated powers given to Washington by the Constitution—but Roberts writes that “Congress can use [Spending Clause] power to implement federal policy it could not impose directly under the enumerated powers.”

So why bother with enumerated powers? Got me…

Addressing education directly, the conservative justices noted that compared to Medicaid, federal education funding is a relatively small share of total spending, casting doubt on how applicable the ruling might be. In contrast, it was very gratifying to see those justices make a point I’ve made repeatedly, especially when discussing the absurd assertion that adopting national curriculum standards has been voluntary. Even if adoption were technically voluntary for states, taxpayers in those states have had no choice about paying the taxes that fund multi-billion-dollar carrots such as Race to the Top. Indeed, the conservatives write, were a state to fail to meet conditions attached to Spending Clause bucks, not only would it lose access to federal funds, it would likely have to raise its own taxes to make up for the shortfall, taxes that “would come on top of federal taxes already paid by the State’s citizens” for the spurned federal program.

The teensy bit of good news out of this ruling is that there is some limit to how coercive Washington can be under the Spending Clause, the clause that has been the linchpin of federal education policy. Unfortunately, the new problem is that were the Spending Clause avenue eventually cut off, Congress could probably just threaten the residents of recalcitrant states with some sort of financial penalty…er…tax. I mean, penalty…

Oh, my existentialist crisis!

Obamacare’s Medicaid Expansion Violates Federalism

Today Cato filed its second Supreme Court amicus brief in the Obamacare litigation, on the issue of whether the health care law’s Medicaid expansion is a proper exercise of the Constitution’s Spending Clause.

That is, states must now accept a comprehensive reorganization of Medicaid or forfeit all federal Medicaid funding—even though the spending power is circumscribed to preserve a distinction between what is local and what is national. If Congress is allowed to attach conditions to spending that the states cannot refuse in order to achieve an objective it could not outright mandate, the local/national distinction that is so central to federalism will be erased.

Joining the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, Pacific Legal Foundation, Rep. Denny Rehberg (chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies), and Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeffrey Colyer (also a practicing physician) we argue that, in requiring states to accept onerous conditions on federal funds that it could not impose directly, the government has exceeded its enumerated powers and violated basic principles of federalism.

California is at risk of losing $25.6 billion in annual federal funding, for example, and together the states stand to lose more than a quarter trillion dollars annually. On average, states would have to increase their general revenue budgets by almost 40% in order to maintain their current level of Medicaid funding.

The 1987 case of South Dakota v. Dole, however, prohibits such a coercive use of the spending power and recognizes that “in some circumstances the financial inducement offered by Congress might be so coercive as to pass the point at which ‘pressure turns into compulsion.’” Indeed, the states’ obligations, should they “choose” to accept federal funding and thus commit themselves to doing the government’s bidding, are far more substantial than those the Supreme Court invalidated in New York v. United States and Printz v. United States (which prohibit federal “commandeering” of state officials).

Moreover, the Congress that enacted the original Social Security Act, to which Medicare and Medicaid were added in the 1960s, recognized that social safety has always been the prerogative of the states and should continue to be done under state discretion. Medicaid itself was narrowly tailored to serve particularly needy groups.

In short, if Obamacare does not cross the line from valid “inducement” to unconstitutional “coercion,” nothing ever will. Just as the Commerce Clause is not an open-ended grant of power, the Spending Clause too has limits that must be enforced.